Sunday, May 25, 2008

Women in Kerala: engendered or endangered?

Kerala's women

The paradox of the status of women in Kerala lies in the confusion between `gender equality' and `gender equity'. The notion of gender equality assumes that the needs and interests of women and men are identical, whereas the notion of gender equity presumes they are different.

Each year witnesses the ritualistic observation of yet another signpost in the long march towards equality and justice of a still marginalised section of much of the world's population - women. March 8 has traditionally been observed as International Women's Day, celebrated in various incarnations since the turn of the century, and formalised in December 1977, when the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a UN Day for Women's Rights and International Peace.

On March 8, 1857, garment workers in New York City in the US, staged a protest against inhumane working conditions and low wages. The police attacked the protestors and dispersed them. Two years later, again in March, these women formed their first labour union to try and protect themselves and gain some basic rights in the workplace.

Such assertion of political and human rights has been the forte of women in Kerala too, especially in the trade union movement in the coir and cashew industries and in the plantations, in the peasant and agricultural labour movements and in the struggles for land reform.

Kerala's women have not remained out of sight of official patronage. As a day of celebration, assertion and review of the status of women in society, March 8 was therefore duly consecrated in Kerala too - with meetings, rallies and speeches.

Women and Kerala have a hallowed relationship, especially in the goggle-eyed wonderment of social scientists, who drool over the power of "women's agency" in advancing the social and economic development of a State.

Frankly, though, for Kerala, which claims the most exalted status for women in social development in the whole of India, the ritual of the red-letter day smacked of sheer pietism - a sham tribute to a largely amorphous empowerment.

Development scholars point to past and current levels of female literacy and education, late age of marriage, declining fertility and a greater female work participation rate to establish that Kerala's women are a privileged lot. However, there is a yawning chasm between official statistics, public policy and everyday lives.

The fact is, as anyone who has lived in Kerala for even a short spell will tell you, Kerala's women are empowered only in a virtual sense - many of the rights and powers they are bestowed with are not inalienably intrinsic to their status as females.

They are, in many cases, the outcome of historical processes husbanded - the word is used here deliberately in its politically incorrect and chauvinist meaning of "being managed" or "stewarded" by males - by institutions and organisations that defined the course of Kerala's history.

In Kerala, women's rights are mediated through different agencies, institutions and practices, most of which remain patriarchical and oppressive, albeit coated in a veneer of progressive postures. The paradox of the status of women in Kerala lies in the confusion between "gender equality" and "gender equity."

Yasushi Uchiyamada, a senior researcher in anthropology at the Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development, Tokyo, who has studied land and modernity in Kerala, explains that the notion of gender equality assumes that the needs and interests of women and men are identical, whereas the notion of gender equity presumes they are different.

Focusing on gender equality - as much of the discourse in Kerala did on International Women's Day - tends to conceal rather than reveal the specific needs and interests of women. Even when women articulate these, the dominant discourse of Kerala society distorts these self-representations, getting them "masculinised" to conform to the expectations of men.

Without institutions that listen and respond to their suppressed voices, women in Kerala will remain content with celebrating International Women's Day year after year - as their international sisters move on to true emancipation and empowerment.


Prema said...

Interesting reading this.
True – it is sad to see this utter sham, symbolic celebrations...
Husbanded - yes -they are ‘husbanded’ – which is why it is so difficult to shed aside that veil of 'protective' concern.... so-called protective cover; when in actuality it is again a veiled wall of control. It is easier to battle ‘hate' and disinterest than to battle ‘love’.

I would, however, like to react to your conclusion that we ‘remain content with celebrating the day…while our sisters abroad move on to true emancipation and empowerment.
This is not a race – to see who reaches empowerment first. Or true emancipation.
While trying to discover and conscientise on empowerment, agency and emancipation, many of us were often surprised at several layers of empowerment and notions of emancipation we came across that set us rethinking, reviewing our notion of empowerment. This is a whole journey. With several halts and breaks on the way.

best wishes

Quincy said...

This is gorgeous!